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Judiciary boss’ bold choice ‘signified break with tradition’

Monday June 20 2011

By NATION CORRESPONDENT

Where one or two judges gather for an official function, one thing often makes them stand out: flowing red robes, and white wigs.

The attire, whose use in Kenya originated from the English courts, is regarded the official wear for judges, and is often worn at Judiciary and State functions.

But on Monday, new Chief Justice Willy Mutunga broke the pattern at his swearing-in ceremony.

His jungle green suit, peach shirt and brightly-coloured tie were a stark contrast to the traditional black gowns worn by Director of Public Prosecutions Keriako Tobiko and High Court Registrar Lydia Achode.

Mr Tobiko was also taking an oath of office, while Ms Achode was there in her capacity as the top judicial administrator.

According to Mr Nicholas Mbeba, a spokesman of the Judiciary, the new Chief Justice said that he avoided the robe to signify a break with the past.

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“There is no law that required Dr Mutunga to wear the robe,” said Fred Ojiambo, adding that the tradition originated in Britain.

“Puisne (High Court) judges were established by the king to hear cases and were required to wear robes to distinguish them from the Executive,” he said.

Mourning period

It is generally believed that the tradition of wearing robes started some time in the 17th Century in England, when all the judges attended the funeral of Queen Mary dressed in black robes.

They did so as sign of mourning. Because the mourning period lasted several years, the practice became entrenched among England’s judges.

It is also believed that as the British Empire expanded due to colonisation, Englishmen carried over the practice to other countries, including Kenya.

While it started off with black robes, the officials slowly adopted red, which is now popular with Kenyan judges.

Judges in other former British colonies like Uganda and Zambia also wear red robes often with black or white appendages.

In England, red was historically associated with royalty, and judges served the royalty.